In the opening chapter of Jung Yun’s debut novel Shelter, a realtor gazes out a window of the house Kyung Cho and his wife, Gillian McFadden, can no longer afford. She sees Kyung’s mother running toward them through the backyard, the elderly woman naked and battered. This is how Kyung learns his parents, Jin and Mae, have been the victims of a prolonged, brutal home invasion. The consequences of the event and the true depth of its horrors unfold over the course of the novel, bringing about a reckoning within the Cho family.
Kyung regards the world as baffling but logical. To him, human interaction is a game marked by correct and incorrect moves. He has a confounding lack of intuition and empathy. The novel hews closely to Kyung’s perspective, and he spends a lot of textual space explaining how other people are feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, assigning them fixed traits and ways of being—strangers and loved ones alike. Though it’s a function of his character, the result is often sluggish, exposition-heavy writing. Every action, no matter how minor, is padded with memories, assumptions, and conjectures on Kyung’s part.
As a child, Kyung’s father beat his mother, and his mother beat Kyung. His mother’s abuse ended when Kyung was large enough to hit back, and his father’s abuse ended when a teenage Kyung called their Presbyterian reverend to intervene. As an adult, Kyung resents his parents powerfully, and clings to his trauma as a way of absolving himself for all of his life’s failures: his violent rages, his unfulfilling career as an academic, his inappropriate drinking, his untenable finances, and above all, his inadequacy as a parent and spouse.
Interestingly, Kyung—and by extension, the closely-framed novel—conflates the legacy of abuse and the Chos’ Korean heritage. Kyung believes in an inherent toxicity to Korean culture and gender relations, and he believes that his family’s dysfunctional relationships are distinctly Korean. He has been “attracted to Korean girls before, but he never wanted to marry one” because even those who were born in the States or immigrated at a young age, like himself, act “as if they never left.” He imagines he’d be helplessly sucked into an unhealthy power dynamic where the woman waits on him, “a foot servant like his mother.” His lust for one Korean woman in particular is revealed to be a desire to subjugate and humiliate her. When they have an ugly, furtive encounter, punctuated by tears and a diamond shredding his cheek as she slaps him, he’s quick to implicate their upbringing.
Kyung refuses to forgive his parents or to cut them out of his life, the two healthy options suggested by white wife. He chooses, instead, to do what feels like the “absolute minimum he can get away with and still be considered a son.” His wife points out he could be doing a hell of a lot less: “What lots of people do—move to another city, get an unlisted number, avoid them. You had every right to cut them out of your life. Even a therapist would say so.” Kyung replies, “That’s an American Idea. Koreans are different.” After his parents’ terrifying ordeal, he tries harder to be a “doting Korean son” (distinct from merely a “doting son” without qualifier) but continues to bounce between resentment and guilt.
For me, the central question of the book is this allocation of blame. Yun wisely leaves ambiguous how much sympathy we should afford Kyung; we aren’t spared the details of the severe abuse he witnessed and endured, nor the selfish, destructive choices he makes in the present. They escalate in parallel. As Kyung’s behavior spirals out of control and becomes harder to defend, we gain further insight into what he’s endured, and what his parents—his mother in particular—have endured in turn.
Does his childhood abuse justify his fits of rage? Do his experiences as an Asian-American man justify his internalized racism, fatalism, and tortured relationship with masculinity? He refers to Korea as “the world he never left,” though he physically left at the age of four. Without ever talking to a doctor, he decides he and his family have reached the point where “no amount psychiatry or pharmacology can help [them] lead a normal life.”
In one telling scene, he initially “want[s] to be assertive in front of his father” and “to prove that it [is] possible to disagree with his wife without feeling the need to beat her into submission,” but he ends up vacillating between extremes: he smashes a platter and “crouch[es] at another man’s feet.” He agonizes over his inability to build a bike or fix a sink, and his inability to be gentle, nurturing, or jocular with his son. He wants others to recognize his father as an abusive monster, even as he wonders if Jin is a “better man” for being able to provide financially as Kyung cannot. It’s hard not to think of the two opposing stereotypes of Asian men that Kyung must have been navigating his entire life: the savage, dictatorial patriarch, like Jin, and the sexless, effeminate clown. Again and again, Kyung chastises himself for being “weak” and, conversely, for losing control in anger. He wants a middle path for which he has no examples.
Near the end of Shelter, Kyung’s father-in-law, an Irish-American cop named Connie, claims the reason he never liked Kyung wasn’t because of his race, as Kyung had always assumed.
“I don’t care what color you are. […] I didn’t want you dating my daughter because of that goddamn chip on your shoulder. You think a father can’t see that kind of thing from a mile away? I knew—not even five minutes after meeting you—that nothing was ever going to make you happy. […] I get why you’re like this now. My father was a son of a bitch too. It’s hard to be happy when you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.”
Kyung agrees to Connie’s assessment, which feels like a last-minute overcorrection by the author, the pendulum swinging all the way in the other direction. Connie’s supposed colorblindness is as hard to swallow as Kyung’s earlier abdication of responsibility and dismissal of all Koreans. The Chos’ heritage isn’t irrelevant but it isn’t to wholly to blame, either. Jin doesn’t have to be just Korean or just a son of a bitch. He can be a Korean son of a bitch.
Much has been made of an uptick in positive, well-rounded media representations of Asian-Americans in the last couple years. At a Q&A during the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, filmmaker Tony Nguyen said it was too soon to tell if the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat represents progress or a blip. He pointed out that Dustin Nguyen played a complex, aspirational character on 21 Jump Street in 1987, while the grotesque caricature on 2 Broke Girls continues to air (and win Emmys) in 2016. Nguyen’s caveat is an important one, but it still feels revolutionary to see characters like Aziz Ansari’s Dev and Kelvin Yu’s Brian on Master of None, or the Korean-American BuzzFeed video personality (and sex symbol) Eugene Lee Yang; their millennial brand of avowedly feminist, fussily metrosexual masculinity affirms their heritage without being defined by it. Or the romantic lead on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a dumb, open-hearted hunk of Californian dude-bro played by Filipino-American Vincent Rodriguez III. Or the hip hop swagger of the real-life Eddie Huang, author of Fresh Off the Boat, a book that—for all his blinkered misogyny and appropriation—tapped into a vein of real anger in our community.
Of course, not all Asian-Americans are Netflix-watching urbanites, but Shelter feels slightly out of step nonetheless, a desperate howl from the half-generation between the straightforward, gendered culture clash of Jin’s generation and the progressive, gender-disrupting individuation of mine. The book’s gaze is fixed firmly backward, sons suffering for the sins of their fathers, tortured and hostile men begetting more of the same. There’s reason to hope this is becoming yesterday’s story, and the world is ready for something new.